LIFE IN KOREA: Medical Care...A Reason to Stay!

by Jimalee Sowell, 24/11/2008


I am often asked why I have stayed in Korea for so long. I usually say, “It’s the job” or “Five months vacation a year.” The truth is… it’s the medical care.

During the twenty-four years I lived in America, I dreaded and put off going to the doctor, just like many advanced non-native English speakers avoid using phrasal verbs, partly because of the imagined or real physical pain, but mostly because of the sting of the doctor’s bill. But in my life in Korea, I’ve grown to love and even anticipate visits to the hospital and dentist. Why? Always an adventure, and a bargain. 

Of course, replica watches I haven’t always been so keenly aware of the merits of the Korean medical-care system. Like learning to appreciate fine art, my love for Korean medical care has needed time to grow and develop. A hangover of my attitude about medical care in America coupled with language difficulties and the ease of purchasing over-the-counter drugs kept me away from Korean hospitals and clinics for nearly two years. But if those factors weren’t enough to keep me out of Korean hospitals and clinics, what really prompted me to start eating an apple a day in Korea were the medical horror stories I heard from foreigners in Korea—simple dental procedure gone wrong with patient ending up in the emergency room, having the wrong mole cut out, doctor asking patient to walk on freshly broken leg…. It was precisely these sorts of snafu stories and urban legends from other expatriates that made me promise myself I’d save medical concerns for trips back home.

I made it successfully through almost two years of living in Korea with only a few trips to a local pharmacy to get the same pack of pills everyone gets when complaining of cold or flu symptoms, as my only medical encounters… Until that fateful day when the bad thing happened. Having spent too much time on a leisurely cup of coffee, I was running late for a meeting with a friend. The last thing I wanted to do before heading out the door was throw out the morning’s coffee grounds. I lifted the trashcan, put the grounds in the can, and then promptly, squarely hit the center of the top of my head on the sharp corner of the cabinet hard enough to pierce a small but deep hole. “Oh, it’s going to bleed.” Blood started to spew like a small geyser. No choice. I knew my days of medical-attention avoidance had ended.

My friend was kind enough to, at the last minute, change our outing plans from bookstore to hospital. In spite of two years in country, we were both still in the silent period of language learning (still are), our knowledge of Korean limited to a number of lexical chunks and a smattering of nouns. When we approached the hospital reception desk, the receptionists made pained expressions as though they were the patients, crossed their arms, took a couple of steps backwards, and said, “English, no!” My friend, dear, brave soul that she is, searched her inner resources for a way to comprehensibly communicate in Korean and came out with what basically translates as, “Friend. Head. Blood.” For some reason I never understood, the receptionists thought I had been in a car accident.

The next thing I recall was being sat down on a hospital-like bed in a cold, steel room with steel beds, steel walls, and steel medical utensils and being told I had some sort of an abrasion. “Suture,” the nurse said.

“Oh, I need stitches, okay.” And then I remember hearing, “Shave.”  

“What have I gotten myself into?” I thought. “How can I explain to them that I don’t really want my head shaved, that I can just live with the third-degree abrasion or whatever they called it? Maybe coming to the hospital wasn’t such a good idea.” The nurse shaved a small portion of my head, and the doctor gave me a few stitches.

Then, the nurse took me to a section of the room with a curtain and indicated I should pull my pants down. “What? Why?” How embarrassing. I hadn’t been asked to pull down my pants in a doctor’s office since second grade. “You can just put it here,” I said, pointing to the upper area of my arm. “No, no, no,” she refused. The strong, angry look on her face scared me a bit. I knew she meant business, so I acquiesced. Later I learned that most medical injections in Korea, no matter the patient’s age, are given in the buttock region.

When we left the hospital, I asked my friend how much the day’s adventure had cost, stitches, a packet of antibiotics to be taken after each meal, and the shot. “Thirty-five dollars.” “What?” Thirty-five dollars? “That’s great! I’ll have to do this more often,” I said. I can’t imagine how much I would have paid if I’d walked into an American emergency room for stitches on a Sunday afternoon. I might still be paying off that debt.

K4E Note: For more information on health care in Korea, see http://www.korea4expats.com/article-doctors.html. Also, scroll down to find other information sections.

Photo by Dean Poulson

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